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I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen a Japanese address written down somewhere before, but if you have, you’ll know that they’re about as long as writing an essay, and perhaps take an equal amount of analytical thinking. If you’ve never run into the concept of a Japanese address, it’s about as opposite as you can get from an American address. I’m not saying that’s bad… just completely different. Thank goodness for GPS, on both accounts. I can barely get around San Francisco, let alone Tokyo.

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1zh49J5rsg']

Watch the first half (or so) of this video. Derek Sivers (hoopy frood who knows where his towel’s at) does a great job explaining the idea of Japanese addresses and how they work, on a basic level. On a more complicated level, it goes something like this.

The first thing to know: Japanese address system is based on areas. These areas are divided from big to small, which go something like this. It’s a lot like a funnel, really.

1. Prefecture (県)

  • There are exceptions to this, though. 都 (to) for Tokyo,  道 (dō) for Hokkaidō and 府 (fu) for the two urban prefectures of Osaka and Kyoto.

2. Municipality.

  • Large cities use 市 (shi)
  • Special wards can use 区 (ku)
  • Smaller municipalities include the district 郡 (gun) followed by the town 町 (chō / machi) or village 村 (mura / son).

3. Location within the municipality

  • Many cities have wards 区 (ku)
  • Wards can be divided up into 町 (chō / machi) or village 村 (mura / son)
  • Towns may be subdivided into even smaller parts too.

4. City District: 丁目 (chōme)

  • Usually assigned based on the order or proximity to the center of the municipality.

5. City block: 番地 (banchi)

  • Also assigned based on the order or proximity to the center of the municipality.

6. House Number: 号 (gō)

  • Based on when the house / building was built or assigned in clockwise order around the city block.

7. Apartment number may be added if the house number refers to an apartment building.

The postal code, which is indicated by a 〒 symbol, goes on top of the address. If you see this symbol on a metal box, it’s a good bet you can put your mail in there.

Here’s an example of an address ripped right off of the good folks at Wikipedia.

〒100-8799
東京都千代田区丸の内二丁目7番2号
東京中央郵便局

〒100-8799 (postal code)
Tōkyō-to (prefecture exception “to” for Tokyo)
Chiyoda-ku (the ward)
Marunouchi ni-chōme (city district)
nana-ban (city block)
ni-gō
(house number)
Tōkyō Chūō Yūbin-kyoku
(name of the place, in this case the “Tokyo Central Post Office”)

Kyoto and Sapporo, The Postal Rebels

Kyoto and Sapporo (up in Hokkaido) do something a little different, though the “official” addressing systems still work. Kyoto has many little chōs going on, often with the same names within the same Ward (which makes it tough on the postal folk). So, to combat this, they have an unofficial (though it is supported by the post office) system that’s based off of street names. This system takes an intersection (two crossing streets) and then additional information on whether the building is north, south, east, or west of this intersection. Yes, this does mean that buildings can have multiple addresses, depending on which intersection was chosen. Sapporo’s system is based on a quadrants set up in the center by two intersecting roads. Blocks are then named based off of how far away they are from the center, which can get kind of weird the farther you are away from the sweet spot.

In the end, the Japanese address system totally makes sense, despite being nearly our complete opposite. Personally, I’d just get a GPS and have it tell me where to go. Or, better yet, get lost. So much more potential for adventure. Well, if you ever get yourself a Japanese pen pal or long-distance language partner (and not one of those new-fangled e-mail ones), hopefully this’ll come in handy!


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  • http://gakuranman.com Gakuranman

    Yea! Leave it to the fugu to clear up those Japanese addresses! They are far easier to write in Japanese if you can remember the kanji though – it's writing them in romaji that is the biggest pain!

  • WOTDsctoo

    Wow, I knew a little bit about the address system, in that it went from big to small, but I had no idea that it was that different…

  • http://desorganizacionrecursiva.blogspot.com/ Luciano

    I have been to Tokyo and the problem I had was with blocks that had the same number (in neighbor choumes I guess). I don't remember the address exactly, but I was looking for a bar, it was late and my legs were aching already. So I was pretty happy when I tried the third block 17 and the bar was there :)

  • StreetSmartLanguageLearning

    Makes sense? Get outta town! (If you can find the way out…)

    Trying to go to any address here is ridiculous. If you're walking in direction x, 2-cho might lead you to 6-cho, even as you're looking for 3-cho. In fact, a few weeks ago I was in just that situation. I asked a taxi driver, and even he had to get a map out to tell me where to go. And you can't just say “Turn right on Main St.” It's turn right at the third light after the Lawson on your left and the Big Box on the right.”

    It really makes you miss named streets, numbered with evens on one side and odds on the other, with each block's numbering starting with the next multiple of 100. So simple, yet so effective.

  • http://twitter.com/ImaginaryJapan Joe Munro

    Nice post! It never even occurred to me that Japan would be any different from the U.S, very interesting.

    If I ever live in a numbered district, it better be District 9. Just saying.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    For the cat food?

  • http://caitlinomara.com Caitlin

    I'd like to throw in 字 (aza) for small towns/villages. So the address would be something like:

    zipcode
    prefecture県
    municipality郡
    ward町
    city name within ward (no extra kanji needed, apparently)
    字section name within city + block and house/apartment # (probably #番地#, but most everyone I knew wrote, for example, 20-1, 20-2, etc.)

  • sleepytako

    Thank you for explaining this the way it should be, using area rather than lines. I think that the ability to turn that mental switch is a good litmus test to see how well you'll deal with adapting to a different culture in general. Also, it's not that the Japanese don't know the system is not as simple as it could be. Hence all the helpers, maps thrown up around the town, and metal signs that say the -cho with a little map showing where the other numbers are. Also, the quality of printed maps in Japan is great. First coming here I took my pocket Kobe map with me everyday. Even if you can't read the kanji you can match the kanji at least.

  • Heiangirl

    So THAT'S why I slept in so many strangers houses in Kyoto! And when I stood in front of those metal signs with my map turned upside down people just pointed and said “5 minutes”. If it was 10 minutes they expected you to take a taxi. You are right, getting lost is wonderful, I remember it as a hoopiedo froodie day with towel.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Artem-Sorokin/100000063505107 Artem Sorokin

    oh wow, this is very interesting! I never would have guessed that something like this exists in the world O_o u enlighten me once again =)

  • tornadoes28

    It seems very confusing, even in a small town like Otawara in Tochigi. I don't know how the postal carriers are able to make their deliveries. They just really know the neighborhood I guess.

  • http://www.streetsmartlanguagelearning.com/ Street-Smart Language Learning

    They're treating the symptoms rather than trying to cure the disease.

  • sleepytako

    I find this comment opposite of what someone with your nick would say. To truly become fluent in a given language you cannot bring prejudices like those that are apparent in your comment. While I guess that some Japanese might find their address system inconvenient, as many in the USA or any other country might, but I doubt many Japanese would describe their system of addresses as a “disease.”

    Let's play out what your trying to say to. What would a cure be? To make all Japanese streets straight and on a grid pattern? There would be no way to create a linear system of streets in Japan without such drastic changes. Those changes would kill the Japanese landscape as we know it–besides being practically impossible.

    The Japanese language is filled with many treatments rather than cures. Furigana is an easy example, but there are many more. This is not only applicable to the language, but it's also apparent in Japanese politics and culture. So if you want to be truly “street-smart” in your use of Japanese and how to best adapt to living here, I would suggest learning how to use these treatments and stop looking for cures that will kill the patient.

  • http://www.streetsmartlanguagelearning.com/ Street-Smart Language Learning

    Uh… it's just an analogy first of all.

    Second of all, becoming fluent in a language and even a culture doesn't mean you can't criticize them where it's appropriate. If fact, blindly accepting anything of the target language's culture with a wistful look and twinkling eyes because it's “the culture” is downright stupid. To become truly fluent in Japanese, do I need to not bring my “prejudices” and just accept it when my friends' Japanese parents disapprove of them marrying black people? I'll remain critical of that, and any other practice that merits it, tyvm.

    And, yes, let's play out what I'm trying to say. I can happily tell you that your ridiculous and hyperbolic suggestion is completely unnecessary; you don't need to rip down the entire country and rebuild it again just to be able to have straight streets to name. Downtown Manhattan, London, and any other number of places with small, meandering streets are named and numbered, so there's no reason why Japan can't do it. The cure would be nothing more than naming the streets and numbering the addresses along those streets, with a transitional period in which both systems would be used. Not all that hard really, and it's certainly not going to “kill the patient”. (You must not think much of the country if you think that changing the address system would “kill the patient”. If that'd kill the patient, how in the world do you expect them to deal with real problems, like anemic economic growth or a graying population?)

    Indeed, I gave this same advice to a commission that was asking how it could increase tourism in Japan. Making it easier for foreigners who can't necessarily ask directions at a koban is a no-brainer.

    Treatments in lieu of cures are found the world over—not just in Japan—but that hardly means we shouldn't strive for the cures when they're in reach.

  • http://www.streetsmartlanguagelearning.com/ Street-Smart Language Learning

    Uh… it's just an analogy first of all.

    Second of all, becoming fluent in a language and even a culture doesn't mean you can't criticize them where it's appropriate. If fact, blindly accepting anything of the target language's culture with a wistful look and twinkling eyes because it's “the culture” is downright stupid. To become truly fluent in Japanese, do I need to not bring my “prejudices” and just accept it when my friends' Japanese parents disapprove of them marrying black people? I'll remain critical of that, and any other practice that merits it, tyvm.

    And, yes, let's play out what I'm trying to say. I can happily tell you that your ridiculous and hyperbolic suggestion is completely unnecessary; you don't need to rip down the entire country and rebuild it again just to be able to have straight streets to name. Downtown Manhattan, London, and any other number of places with small, meandering streets are named and numbered, so there's no reason why Japan can't do it. The cure would be nothing more than naming the streets and numbering the addresses along those streets, with a transitional period in which both systems would be used. Not all that hard really, and it's certainly not going to “kill the patient”. (You must not think much of the country if you think that changing the address system would “kill the patient”. If that'd kill the patient, how in the world do you expect them to deal with real problems, like anemic economic growth or a graying population?)

    Indeed, I gave this same advice to a commission that was asking how it could increase tourism in Japan. Making it easier for foreigners who can't necessarily ask directions at a koban is a no-brainer.

    Treatments in lieu of cures are found the world over—not just in Japan—but that hardly means we shouldn't strive for the cures when they're in reach.

  • http://culturequirk.blogspot.com/ Delphine

    This is so helpful!! I never really understood how the address system worked. Finding things when I was in Japan was sooo much fun… Good thing everyone was so friendly and helped us when we were lost!

  • http://lingomatch.com/ Andrew Playford

    Never mind the postal addresses, a friend of mine once dropped me off at the Tokyo subway. Do you think I could read that subway map!

  • http://durf.org/ Durf

    “Smaller municipalities include the district 郡”

    The 郡 is often included as part of the full address, but the smaller towns and villages don't have names that “include” this. You can address a postcard to 栃木県那須町 and it will get there just fine, even without the intermediate 那須郡, which people tend to leave off in many cases, both spoken and written.

    Since the advent of seven-digit postal codes things have gotten much easier for the post office workers, I imagine.

  • http://durf.org/ Durf

    “Smaller municipalities include the district 郡”

    The 郡 is often included as part of the full address, but the smaller towns and villages don't have names that “include” this. You can address a postcard to 栃木県那須町 and it will get there just fine, even without the intermediate 那須郡, which people tend to leave off in many cases, both spoken and written.

    Since the advent of seven-digit postal codes things have gotten much easier for the post office workers, I imagine.

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  • abusori

    I know I'm 4 months late, but I still had to comment on this. I'm 17, and I've always hated the street names thing we have going here and refuse to learn their names ever. When I began to drive, my parents wanted to know why I didn't know any streets and why I wouldn't learn them. I suppose I don't know why, really, maybe something to do with all my time spent exploring the woods (in which there are no roads). But anyways, they asked me what I would've done instead if it was my choice, and I said that I'd break everything up into blocks and name those instead and it'd be so much easier. It never occurred to me that anywhere else might do it differently, but after seeing this, my mind = blown. Apparently I'm not crazy.

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    They're treating the symptoms rather than trying to cure the disease.

  • http://hi.baidu.com/yishiym123 TwoBlue

    Yea! Leave it to the fugu to clear up those Japanese addresses!

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    They're treating the symptoms rather than trying to cure the disease.

  • http://hi.baidu.com/yishiym123 TwoBlue

    Yea! Leave it to the fugu to clear up those Japanese addresses!

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  • http://www.facebook.com/behrens.j Jessika Behrens

    I remember, I lived in Fushimi-ku (kyoto, fushimi is one of 13 wards), how frustrating I found it not to be able to find some semblance of order in the address-system. In other cities I usually hail a cab when ultimately lost. In Kyoto the weary cab driver would ask for a map to your intended destination.

  • http://www.dvd-creator-converter.com/tutorials/convert-mp4-mpeg4-to-dvd.html mp4 to dvd

    Thank goodness for GPS, on both accounts. I can barely get around San Francisco, let alone Tokyo.

  • Wani Kani no ki

    What is wrong with an e-pal, Koichi aka Destroyer of the Japanese Language Industry and Wani Kani Crabby Father?

  • Nihon Newb

    But my Lonely Planet guide book has maps with street names on them (though addresses for locations are given using the system described above). What are the street names used for, if anything?